I remember sitting on the street that day in Guatemala, my backpack tucked under my arm, feeling very, very alone. And very stupid. Why was I taking a 10-hour bus ride across the country with no one by my side? With no one to share the experience?
Besides the sense of impending doom I had brought upon myself by coming up with the insane idea to spend two weeks backpacking the country, I had also just bid farewell to 20 new friends I made interning with a non-profit organization in rural Guatemala for the past couple months, so the feeling of sudden loneliness was especially intense, like a flower ripped out of its soil and left dangling in someone else's fist.
None of those friends had the hair-brained idea to go it alone and see what the rest of the country was like. They were perfectly content to wrap up their internship and get on the first plane back to JFK. Why was I suddenly realizing I was a little bit different?
That was six years ago, and it was the first time I ever traveled solo. Since then, I've spent over a year backpacking alone across South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and now India. That fear and anxiety I first experienced back in Guatemala has long since dissipated.
I've learned that you simply have to trust in the world to deliver you into, and out of, all kinds of situations.
I'll go anywhere on my own -- and I'm a 26-year old, five-foot tall, blonde-haired girl. I've crossed the Egyptian-Israeli border (on foot) at 4 o'clock in the morning, taken night trains across India, and ridden on the back of motorcycles at all hours of the day and night on virtually every continent. I've learned that you simply have to trust in the world to deliver you into, and out of, all kinds of situations -- not because you actually really trust the universe and everyone in it, but because you have to. And being at the mercy of the world and its people in that way is the ultimate liberation, the ultimate way to encounter (and even begin to remotely understand and appreciate) the vast array of humanity that populates our planet.
If you're planning your first solo trip, or if you've perhaps done a couple trips and want to improve your experience, I have quite a few ideas for you. I'll break down my secrets to making the most of solo travel into 3 categories:
- Meeting other travelers
- Immersing yourself with locals
- Taking good care of yourself
For each, I'll tell you how I've managed to create the best possible experience in each one using the right combination of awareness, openness, and plain ol' courage.
How I Meet Other Travelers
Usually, I kind of like being on my own. I'm one of those people who genuinely enjoy my own company and lean towards the introvert end of the spectrum.
But I admit, there are also periods of time where traveling solo drives me crazy and I wonder why I've chosen to go it alone. The kind of moments where I'm struggling to carry all my stuff for several kilometers, or I want to go swimming at the beach without risking my stuff being stolen, or I'm having a brief walk through a neighborhood that suddenly turns unsavory.
At times like these, I make a concerted effort to beef up my social skills and seek out other travelers. In Laos, I traveled with a French girl who was spending two years raising money by running marathons in every country she visited. I hitchhiked in central Myanmar with a group of German guys. I spent another two weeks taking slow boats and trains across northern Myanmar with a guy traveling the world and building his own software company at the same time.
The best part? At the end of the day, I'm still on my own, free to join up with others when I want, but also free to part ways when I want with no hard feelings.
Everyone makes fun of the concept of "small talk," but the reality is people need to start somewhere with one another, especially when you're sitting awkwardly in a dorm room at the hostel feeling each other out.
Undoubtedly, these experiences meeting and traveling with other backpackers have been some of my favorite memories on the road. So how do I get to that point? How do I go from dinner by my lonesome to road-tripping across Burma with new friends?
Stay at a popular hostel
The first thing I do when I want to start traveling with other people is to stay at the most popular hostel in town. I go on HostelWorld and search by "overall rating" to find the place with the most and best reviews. Most backpackers use a similar method so you're likely to find a place with good atmosphere and like-minded travelers this way.
Then, once I'm sitting around the hostel, I'll try to be the first one to smile and offer my name. It's SO simple and it makes all the difference in the world. If someone else is making an effort too, often the typical opening line is “where are you from?” So when someone at least ventures that far, I'll respond, “I'm from New York. My name's Elaina, and you?” See, I accepted their gesture of friendliness and took it one step further.
This usually starts a conversation and before you know it you're going for a beer or dinner or sightseeing together. It's also important to be prepared to wait around at the hostel or guesthouse. After breakfast, just sit in the common area looking friendly, join in the conversation, introduce yourself, and see if a group gathers to go do something. Often times by being less in a rush to go march out the door and do my own thing, I've found I can link up with other travelers pretty easily.
Be the leader and invite others to join you
If above methods don't work, the next step is guaranteed to work: I extend an invitation. When I do this, I'll make up my mind about what I'm doing for the day and invite the people around me to join, especially if it's a lackluster after-breakfast crowd and no one seems to be doing anything in particular.
So I'll try my hand at being the party-planner, the adventurer, the leader of the pack. I'm always surprised at what people will go along with when someone sounds excited about what they've got planned.
Invite yourself to join others (within reason)
I also sometimes do the "include myself" method. That's when there's a group of people at the hostel talking about going swimming in a lagoon and I pipe in and say, “Oh hey, are you guys headed to the Blue Lagoon? I heard it's also supposed to be an amazing picnic spot! Mind if I bring a bottle of wine and join you guys?” It takes GUTS, let me tell you, but if delivered with confidence and a big smile, it rarely goes wrong.
Get good at small talk
The last thing I always focus on is improving my small talk skills. Everyone makes fun of the concept of “small talk,” but the reality is people need to start somewhere with one another, especially when you're sitting awkwardly in a dorm room at the hostel feeling each other out.
I recently had a coworker's girlfriend's coworker who is from India invite me to her home in Mumbai for dinner and take me out with her friends.
So I do myself and my potential new friends a favor and go well beyond the “where are you from, how long are you traveling for, where have you been, and where are you going” conversations. People appreciate it and many of those questions lend themselves to what sounds like a competition over who's traveling more instead of sharing experiences and getting to know each other.
Instead, I lead with “What's your story?” or start with most recent history: “How was your day? Do you like it here so far? What have you enjoyed most about this place?” These topics let us bond over where we are right now, not where we've been or where we're going, which usually doesn't include the other person and proves distancing when initially trying to build rapport.
How I Meet Locals
Being good at small talk is just as important for meeting locals as it is other travelers. By trying to be good at striking up -- and keeping up -- conversation with new people, I meet just about everyone.
I recently went on a motorbike adventure in remote Koh Yao Noi with a young Thai artist because I accidentally wandered into his art gallery, we started chatting, and I invited him to come to the beach with me after work. Let me tell you, I learned a whole lot more Thai, and more about Thailand, in those several hours than I had in a month of traveling the country.
By using Couchsurfing and Airbnb
Couchsurfing.org is one of my favorite ways to meet locals and stay somewhere for free. I've surfed in Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, Peru, and Spain and I've hosted travelers in my apartment in New York, too.
I've had the best experiences from Couchsurfing: grilling asado with a group of young Argentine people on their rooftop in Cordoba, learning to cook traditional recipes with an 80-year old Peruvian man and his 100-year old mother at their house on the rural coast, and getting a high-speed moped tour with my host in Taipei.
Since I speak Spanish and Chinese, I also selected countries to Couchsurf where I spoke the language and was able to practice with my hosts, making the experience that much more rewarding and immersive.
AirBnb is also a great way to temporarily share a flat with locals or find an informal homestay.
Use social media to find friends of friends
I also shamelessly use Facebook to find friends of friends (of friends) who might live in the country where I'm traveling. I recently had a coworker's girlfriend's coworker who is from India invite me to her home in Mumbai for dinner and take me out with her friends. I even had dinner in India with a blog reader of mine who reached out when he knew I was in his country. Being adventurous and open to meeting everyone and anyone has led to this.
Drop your "defense mechanisms"
In general, and this goes for meeting locals and travelers alike, I try to drop my "defense mechanism" as much as possible, because if I have my phone, book, or whatever device in front of me, I definitely won't meet anyone.
Packing up all your stuff, moving every few days or few weeks, taking every conceivable form of transportation to cross cities, countries, and continents, and constantly meeting people (and saying goodbye) takes a physical and mental toll.
If I make myself look available by paying attention to my body language, smiling more, facing other people, and looking generally pleasant, I become more engaging and wind up getting invited to dinner, tea, beers, and beyond. (The opposite is also useful, especially in countries with aggressive or annoying men like Egypt and India, so I'll keep headphones in when I'm walking down a busy street or read a book on the bus when I don't want to be bothered.)
How I Take Care of Myself
Adventure can be exhausting. Packing up all your stuff, moving every few days or few weeks, taking every conceivable form of transportation to cross cities, countries, and continents, and constantly meeting people (and saying goodbye) takes a physical and mental toll.
When I'm traveling long-term (right now I'm on a 7-10 month trip), I make it a point to spend at least two weeks in just one city or town in every country and settle in. I find a guesthouse I love, negotiate a good rate since I'm staying 14 nights, and I unpack and get comfortable.
Ideally, this city or town will have plenty to do -- at least 5-7 days worth of things I want to do. But because I'm staying longer, I can pick just one or two of those things to do every day, and take entire days off to sleep, read, write, work (I'm currently a part-time digital nomad (ad)). Those days can be the hardest because I always feel the need to be out and about and doing something, but once I fight that urge and let myself have a few days without sightseeing, without taking any pictures, without an agenda, just sleeping in and doing some of the same things I like to do on a lazy day when I'm home. This re-energizes me and lets travel feel a little more normal.
I also do little, practical things that make traveling easier for me: I only wear comfortable shoes, I pack a small pharmacy in my backpack so I'm never without a medicine or critical toiletry item when I need it, I travel with many size locks so I can always keep my valuables safe, I pack a cozy hoodie and shorts for lounging/sick/travel days, and I get a SIM card in any country where I'll be staying over one month. Sometimes I like to be off the grid, but having a local phone number with internet connectivity is a huge convenience, not to mention a very practical safety measure. I always surprise myself with how these little luxuries make a world of a difference in my happiness and comfort level.
It's All About Opting In
The most important thing I've learned from traveling alone is how to say “yes” more. There's the option to go on a boat trip, to go diving, to join a tour, to sleep in a temple, to learn to rock climb. Yes, yes, and yes. As they say, you'll never know until you try, so I try everything I can. Some of my favorite travel memories have happened when I just went with the flow and jumped into something new.
I've also learned a lot about getting comfortable with solitude. Perhaps this isn't the best note to end on, but it's important to remind you about this very real part of traveling solo: you're going to have times where you're all alone. You flew out alone, you're calling all the shots, you get all the freedom and glory, so you also get the inevitable periods of loneliness. Sink into it, acknowledge it, and work through it. Truly learn to enjoy your own company – it's one of life's great pleasures that few people ever master.
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